Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Price is Faith

I have never understood money. I know it serves it’s purpose and I like it enough when I want a pair of shoes, but when it comes to understanding how much I have, how much I need and what the best thing is to do with it is, I am hopelessly confused. I was the kid in college who, when my parents called and asked if my checkbook was balanced, I’d say, “uh… I put my card in the ATM and money’s coming out, so… I guess…?” My first “job” out of college was a volunteer gig that paid $12 a week so the next two years didn’t afford much opportunity to practice (This weeks budget: a coke, two beers and a burrito. Done). Ever since then I’ve been in denial about money, spending less or more depending on how much I guessed I had. This sometimes works, but I’m finally admitting that this is not a very mature approach to life. I’m gradually coming to terms with the fact that just because I don’t understand money, find it incredibly boring and don’t see why I need to waste my time with it, it’s still very much a reality.

My roommate came home with a logical next step. Her church, Lowcountry Community, was beginning the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University. The website advertised skills in budgeting, investing and getting rid of debt. I could make a list of things I would rather be doing than thinking about these topics. It would begin with “getting a tooth filled” and end with “spend an afternoon at the DMV”, but that responsible voice in my head that gets ignored all to frequently won this argument, so Monday night found me sitting in a class while Dave Ramsey lectured me from a screen about investments and saving for retirement.

Hold up. Retirement? Good grief. I’m still paying off my college loans. I almost got up and left. I had begrudgingly signed up for this to learn to manage my money for now, not think forty years into the future. I can hardly get my act together enough to grocery shop for three days in advance. This was just too much.

However, when I finally stopped procrastinating and found myself sitting in my room with my bank statements, receipts and bills spread out around me on the floor, I had a reality check. It didn’t matter how I “felt” about money. It didn’t matter if I found it boring, if I’d rather be doing anything but think about it, if I’d rather plan my fall wardrobe than retirement. It was still there. (Or, as I’m realizing, not there.) And if I failed to learn how to manage it well, I would find myself at the age of retirement with a lot of problems that I could have avoided.

I’m sure most people are reading this thinking, “way to grow up, Al. Silly girl, it’s about time you started thinking about the reality of the future. You can’t just expect these things to work themselves out!”. I was foolish for many years and I’m finally being responsible. However, I would like to point out that my former approach to money is how many people approach their faith. They say that it’s boring, they don’t understand it, there’s a million things they’d rather be doing, that life is too busy to fit in things like praying and going to church. But the reality is, God is there whether we “understand” Him or not. If I don’t plan for the future, and even for retirement, I can’t expect it all to just work out.

We were all created with an eternal, immortal soul which will spend forever somewhere. Death, judgment, heaven and hell are a reality. Looking at savings spreadsheets, I’ve realized that I need to be investing in my future now because you can’t make it all up later. Similarly, you can’t expect Faith to appear by magic at the hour of your death. St. Augustine, a bishop who lived in the 400’s explained, “In order to see eventually, for the time being believe. Faith does the earning; sight is the reward. If you want to see before you believe, you’re demanding to be paid before the job.” That initial act of Faith, of believing in God and making Him a priority is an investment far more important than any account or 401k. St. Augustine explains, “What you want to see has it’s price. You want to see God; the price of such a tremendous good as that is faith.”

That Blessed Union...

This summer I’ve thought a lot about marriage. (Don’t worry, I only introduce myself that way in columns.). Anyways, there’s been a lot happening in the world to turn my thoughts in that direction. Some events have been positive-- the weddings and engagements of friends and family. Some have been negative— mock me if you want, but I’m taking Jon and Kate’s break up really hard, and I know none of us will ever think of the Appalachian Trail in the same way, if you know what I mean.

So marriage. “Marriage is what brings us together today… That blessed union, that dream within a dream” (props if you got the Princess Bride shout-out). But I think what we are learning is that for some, marriage isn’t necessarily the dream within a dream that the Disney princesses led us to believe. Many of the bridal shower and wedding reception conversations I’ve had with friends have drifted to all the negative press that marriage has been getting, leading us to wonder, “why are we, as a society, so bad at this? I mean, if Jon and Kate, with their organic meals and perfect hair couldn’t get it together for Aaden and his seven siblings, who stands a chance?”

I’d like to propose (no pun intended) that it’s because we’ve forgotten the point of marriage in the first place. Flipping through cards in the wedding section confirmed this suspicion as I opened to greetings that sounded more like they belonged on “get well” cards (No joke, I honestly read one that said “here’s hoping it all works out!”). Marriage seems to be in trouble. Not for want of self help books, because I think we get that men are from Mars and women are from Venus (and where does that leave us now that Pluto’s not a planet?). No, we’ve got astronomy down. To understand marriage, we need to understand God and His Church.

I can only speak for team Catholic, but marriage is a Sacrament. A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ that gives us grace. I think of Sacraments as God’s answer to our ADHD society, knowing that we need tangible signs to remind us of Him and the grace He gives us to live our lives. Team Catholic has seven such signs that can be found in Scipture and passed down in Tradition from the time of Christ. All seven infuse grace into the moments of life when we need to remember that God is here (for example, Baptism to celebrate new life, Confession when we sin… you get the idea). These signs don’t replace God, but remind us of his presence in significant moments.

Although it may seem like it, Marriage was not created by Hallmark or David’s Bridal. God instituted marriage when he looked at Adam in the garden, surrounded by animals, yet realized that, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). When he sees Eve, Adam realizes that “This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh…” (Genesis 2:23), Genesis then tells us that this is why a man leaves his father and mother and the two of them become “one body” (Genesis 2:24). The union of man and woman began with Adam and Eve and continues throughout history.

You’re probably thinking, awh, yeah, that’s so sweet. Adam and Eve were, as we’d say in text-lingo, MFEO (made for each other). But what does that have to do with the Church? As was mentioned, sacraments are signs and in the case of marriage, it’s the sign of the union of Christ and the Church. Think about what God did for us here. In Ephesians 5:25, Paul reminds “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loves the Church…”. Christ loved the Church by offering up his whole life on the cross and continues to love us, waiting for the day that we join Him in heaven. God intends that every marriage we see be a reminder of this. Marriage is more than a joint mortgage and a minivan. It’s signifying Christ’s eternal love for the Church. When a man and a woman make vows to each other for as long as they live, Christ intended that it be a reminder to us of His faithfulness to us for eternity. Just like Christ didn’t live to serve himself in his life and death, husbands and wives look to Christ to remember that it’s about serving one another and the children that eventually come from their union.

My friend recently got married and she made spreadsheets for the ceremony and reception to clarify to her attendants who was to be present and when. When it came time to exchange the vows the “participants” column listed “Christ” above her and her fiancĂ© to remind them, from the beginning, Who this was all about. It was her day, but she was very aware that she was about to follow Christ in a new way through being a sign of His love for the Church. Maybe not what a Disney princess would do, but a pretty incredible vocation nonetheless. When we look around and wonder what’s gone wrong, our first step should be looking to Christ’s love for the Church as the model of Love.

Father Gus

Originally published August 13

I received a text message on my way to Church last weekend that read, “Hey everybody… Fr. Gus died this morning in his sleep… pray for the repose of his soul and pass on this prayer.”

That text, or the event that it reported, put a lot in perspective that morning. Unlike most South Carolinians who to attend USC, Clemson and occasionally College of Charleston, my senior year of high school I set my sights on the small liberal arts school, Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio (that’s Steu BEN ville. Not “stupid ville”. Hometown of Dean Martin and most densely polluted air you’ll encounter outside of Beijing). Yes, in a switch from the norm, I loaded up a blue minivan and went to Ohio. What led me to attend college out of state and 12 hours away was the fact that this college was run by the Franciscans, an order of Catholic priests who follow the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis of Assisi, born in the early 1100’s, is famous as being the made into the only figurine to feed more birds than that “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” statue, but he is worth getting to know at a deeper level for his decision to renounce the wealth of his family and radically live all that is taught in the Scriptures, especially to serve Christ in the poor. Many chose to follow his example in the years that followed, to this day the Franciscans are some of Team Catholic’s most valuable players. St. Francis taught a life of conversion, that we’re to grow in holiness through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This spirituality permeated my experience at college, The Franciscans taught us that following Christ, “the way, the truth and the life” meant pursuing both knowledge of God and of the world-- Faith and Reason-- to prepare us for the “real world”.

At an age where one makes decisions that affect the rest of their life (what should I do when I graduate? Should I get married? What do I actually believe? How would I look with a goatee?) Father Gus was a Franciscan on campus who lead us to focus on what was important, but with a loving example. He’d give students the coat off his back in the bitter Ohio winter, would never let a woman walk next to the road and spent hours each week in the dormitory chaplain’s office listening to students talk about anything and everything. He also had a mischievous sense of humor and would often tell everyone that no one remembered his birthday. When his fellow priests would ask why, he’s simply gesture knowingly to all the cakes that were being delivered to their house. He’d regularly put guys in headlocks and chase students down to try to trip them with his cane. He loved us and we knew it, which is why he could get away with calling us out on sin. He saw himself as our spiritual father, and knew that in the end, life was more than graduating and getting jobs and all the post college stuff we were preoccupied with. He was always reminding us that in the end, life was about getting to heaven.

When I received the text message about his death, I was overwhelmed that I now knew someone in heaven. It was like hearing that a friend had finally come home after a long trip. Everything in his life had been oriented towards this moment, when he’d leave earth and meet God face to face. I was not alone in this thought. Facebook statuses, twitters and texts shot around all afternoon from Franciscan graduates now spread out all over the U.S, saying things like, “Father Gus, put Jesus in a headlock ‘til I get there!” and “Pray for me until we meet again!”. The thought of the world minus Father Gus is sad, but as Church began that morning, all I could think was that I this was the mystery St. Paul described, “it is Christ in you, the hope for glory!” (Colossians 1:27). Fr. Gus’s life and death all reminded us what we hope for.

In college, I was encouraged to seek both faith and reason as I matured to adulthood. This is because we have all been created to be in Heaven. Forever. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutia of day to day living and forget that this isn’t all there is. The life and death of someone like Father Gus snapped me out of my daily routine of checking facebook, hanging out with friends and deciding between a blackberry and iphone and gave me a reality check. I was reminded of what St. Paul told the Hebrews—“we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Hebrews 12:1). A cloud of witnesses is watching and waiting. Are you running to win?

Twitters from Workcamp

originally published July 15

I’m sure you’ve run into a few youth groups on trips this summer, at rest stops, MacDonalds… or hospitals… and you may have wondered what was going through the minds of the adults that are with them. I just spent a week at Catholic HEART workcamp (affectionately abbreviated to “CHWC”) with sixteen teens and two brave adult chaperones. We slept on the floor, ate cafeteria food and spent hours each day serving the community through various painting, repair and yardwork projects. We had a blast and of course I twittered the whole time since nowadays, texting people about how much fun you’re having is the only way to authenticate it. I thought I’d share the highlights for those of you who might not be up on micro-blogging and would like to see shapshots of the week, in 140 characters or less:

Saturday: prepping for CHWC camp which we jet-set off for in about 20 hours.... I'm so g-l-a-m-o-r-o-u-s.... the Fergie of youth ministry. You heard me. Fergie. I’m so 3008, you’re so 2000 and late.

Traded my civic for a minivan this week. I am a soccer mom poser. So much for being Fergie. She probably does not jet-set off in a minivan. However, Fergie does not drive 7 high school students, which I am doing. Are we there yet?

Sunday: After a week with middle schoolers... I have a middle school work group at CHWC... There's a lesson here. Patience. Lots of patience. Part of the process of this week is that they put everyone, including adult leaders, with people they don’t know. Our team is made up of sixth and seventh graders and one other adult. We’ve been assigned to an assisted living center to do yard work, painting and power washing. I have just spent a week with middle school students at Bible Camp and have witnessed first-hand their concentration abilities. I’m trying to stay optimistic about their ability to focus through landscaping two developments.

Monday: One of my teens forgot his toothbrush and asked if I would get “the cheapest guys toothbrush”. When did toothbrushes get gender specific? His friends were at the store with me. They picked out a Barbie toothbrush. He refused it. Not sure how this story ended, but he still had all his teeth by the end of the trip.

10:39 p.m. Whoever is chaperoning the boys in the next room better regulate their kid's noise levels or prepare to come to Jesus at breakfast... Come to find out they were playing dodgeball. At 10:39 p.m. The victims were lined up on the wall they shared with us. Where do youth get their energy?

Tuesday: It's taco Tuesday at CHWC which is up there with shark week when it comes to meaningless yet amazing holidays. Tacos are always served for dinner on Tuesday, it’s gone from being a menu item to an all-out holiday complete with sombreros and theme music. Never have tortillas with a spoonful of meat in them brought about such pomp and circumstance.

10:21 p.m. Two whole days into camp... And I'm only holding two confiscated phones. They’re learning. I am the ultimate fun-stealer, but I take away cell phones when the kids use them at times that they’re supposed to be paying attention to talks or programs. They act like they’re dying at first, but deep down, I think they’re finding communicating in person to be its own reward.

Wednesday: we've been at an assisted living home. Its putting life in perspective. Today, lets appreciate walking, eating and dressing independently. I stand corrected about the abilities of my team—they’ve been doing a great job power washing, painting and planting at the request of the residents. We’ve also had a chance to visit with the residents and talking to them is both inspirational and full of personal challenges. Many of them have told us some neat stories about their lives, their hobbies and the advantages of winning bingo (20 wins gets you $5). However, there have also been pieces of advice such as “use those legs while you still can… enjoy your food while you can still feed yourself… I was married to my best friend for 40 years. You kids find that too…” Being here has reminded me that we all have a terminal illness—it’s called life. How are you spending yours?
4:45 p.m. “I just used your hair dryer to dry my feet”... -one of my teens tells me as I walk into our room. I don’t know how to further elaborate. I’m not even sure why her feet were wet.

Thursday: Last day of work. You know what I've noticed? Middle schoolers wear lots of orthodontia. It makes them spit. Especially when they’re excited, which we are since it’s our last day of work! We landscaped, painted and visited but most importantly I watched kids who, despite their awkward orthodontia and initial discomfort at being in an unfamiliar place with new people, were able to be Christ’s hands and feet and love to the community they were sent to. I’m very proud of them.

Catholic HEART Workcamp is located in Jasper County this week so if you see a group of teens out doing servive projects in our community. If you see them, be sure to yell “Holy C.O.W.!” (Catholics Out Working!) and appreciate that these kids have given up a week of their summer to sleep on a floor, eat tacos and use Barbie tooth brushes… And know if the adult’s hair smells like feet… you know why.